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Tokyo Olympic Games – Will the absence of cheering crowd has an impact on the athletes

by Yehudit Haspel Ben-Dak

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics will soon begin, a year later due to the corona plague that has changed world orders. The State of Israel proudly sends the largest delegation ever, including 90 male and female athletes, including a ball team and 17 other industries.

Along with the large delegation and the excitement of holding the world’s largest sporting event, the athletes will have to compete in Japan against empty and silent stands, a situation that has not happened since the 3rd century BC at the various Olympics.

The question is how much, if any, Olympic athletes can make the most of themselves without significant audience encouragement. 

 Dr. Yftach Gepner of the Sylvan Adams Sports Institute, Tel Aviv University, focuses on understanding the extent, intensity, and type of exercise needed to improve performance and health under a wide range of clinical conditions using cutting-edge technologies.

Gepner states that physiologically, audience presence should not directly impact athletes’ ability to perform physically. “The muscle’s ability to contract and produce power (power output) is related, among other things, to the volume and structure of the muscle, the distribution of the types of fibers in it, the amount and function of mitochondria, aerobic capacity, the number of neuromotor units in the muscle and more. But these cannot fully reflect and predict the performance of athletes at the Olympics. In fact, studies in recent years, including blue-and-white works, have shown that external factors have a significant effect on physical abilities.”

Dr. Yftach Gepner, The Sylvan Adams Sports Institute, at Tel Aviv University

Dr. Gepner shows that during the Corona pandemic, there were some interesting findings. “A great example comes from the most popular sport around the world – Soccer. While the recent Euro Cup played in front of throngs of fans, the Copa America games were with empty seats at the stadiums. As a result, the mean goals per game in the Euro Cup were 20% higher than Copa America(2.8 vs. 2.3). Similar to the high score in the NBA playoff this year, compared to the playoff played in the “bubble” in Orlando in 2020.”

Is it true also in other Olympic fields?

“At the athletic field, the silence is a helping factor. As part of the Olympic Games preparation competitions, quite a few world records were broken in athletics throughout the past year, most of them in silence from the stands. Karsten and Rholm from Norway broke the world record in the 400-meter hurdles, Latsenabat Gidi from Ethiopia broke the world record in the 10 km run, and Joshua Chaptagay of Uganda broke a 15-year-old record when he set 26:11 minutes in the 10km run. These were determined when around the athletes stood lonely people with no eyes and with masks covering their facial expressions.

So, crowd cheering is a motivator for certain sports fields alone? More individualistic and less for teamwork, like ball games?

” Crowd cheering is excellent for increasing adrenaline in an athlete by pushing some to greater feats of skill, speed, or strength. Therefore, crowds might improve performance in sports that involve strength, endurance, or teams. They also can prove beneficial in events that go on long enough for an athlete to get exhausted. The influence of encouragement depends not just on the type of sport but also on the athlete’s personality, resilience, and experience.

Crowds can improve sports performance that involves strength, endurance, or teams (ball game, running, etc.). In some sports, particularly those requiring high concentration (i.e. pole jumping, fencing, archery), adrenaline is the last chemical the athletes want in their bodies. Adrenaline increases heart rate and blood pressure, and might decrease the ability to focus in multi-tasking sports.”

How did you come up with your scientific findings?

“Works that examined the performance of athletes with and without encouragement in laboratory conditions showed a significant improvement in dynamic and static strength indices, as well as in aerobic abilities. Another aspect that affects performance is the athlete’s personality structure and their perceptions of self-efficacy, optimism, and resilience in a focused way.

Also found that personality structure and the perception of external encouragement can explain much of the differences between athletes in how external factors may affect their success. From a scientific standpoint, previous studies have shown that verbal encouragement has tremendous effects on diverse sports science aspects.

Many studies report that providing verbal encouragement in a lab setting can enhance maximal voluntary contraction by 7%, rate of force development by 18%, and delay exhaustion by 8%. In addition, athlete’s encouragement by the crowds can even influence blood inflammation, lactate concentration, and adrenaline. These may not only relate to athlete’s performance but also to the rate of recovery from exercise-induced muscle damage, a common condition among sport types at the Olympic Games.”

Dr. Gepner reviews his findings that people in every field, especially among athletes, who receive massive encouragement, manage to push themselves beyond the sellers’ boundaries by empowering the inner forces. We have to wait and see if the games in Tokyo will shatter our expectations or deepen the longing for vibrant stands and full of joy for the sport we love so much.

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